Dominic Lafontaine & Nicolas Renaud 

Opening: Friday November 3, 2023
November 3 - January 13, 2024

Dictionaries define the noun mnemonic (pronounced ne’monik) as “a device, such as a pattern, that assists in remembering.”

At its centre this exhibition situates wampum as a catalyst of memory, to remember history, traditions, and laws and to signify the importance of the messages associated with wampum. For Dom Lafontaine and Nicolas Renaud, the wampum is a locus from which to remember what has gone before, to think through the uses of wampum and to articulate wampum in a contemporary context and in various art media.

To begin we need to know what wampum is. The word is a shortening of wampumpeag, which is derived from the Narragansett word meaning "white strings of shell beads.” Essentially, wampum are tubular beads made from various white and purple mollusk shells. The quahog clam yields the purple beads. Various whelk species have been used to create the white wampum.[1]The white and purple beads are woven together in a tight band to make wampum belts.

In his practice, Renaud is intrigued by the hard and brittle shells as a source material. He describes these as important in the long history of aesthetic transformations of natural materials by Indigenous peoples. In this case, the shells were transitioned into objects that create meaning, carry thoughts and speech, and connect the physical and spiritual worlds. In his installation, Stained glass – screen – wampum #2, Renaud enters a dialogue with the 1678 wampum belt made by Wendat converts at the Jesuit mission of Lorette, with its prayer in Latin to “the Virgin who shall give birth.” After being troubled by the Christianized wampum belts, he came to understand  this wampum as an indicator of Wendat worldview and an assertion of both identity and recognition of land and Wendat territory. He outlines Wendat agency in the historic object, and responds by bringing together wampum, references to the famous stained glass at Chartres cathedral where the 1678 wampum was sent, and the Wendat creation story. He does so through the mixing of shell beads with glass and crystal beads and  the contemporary mediums, such as  projection and light boxes.  Similarly, Peace and war at the same time uses quahog shell beads and a mirror to highlight and reinterpret wampum as a graphic symbol.  The work references the 1825 portrait of Nicolas Vincent Tsawenhohi (1769-1844), in which he holds wampum as a way to criticize broken agreements regarding the sharing of lands and waters.

Renaud uses materials often associated with traditional methods; while recognizing that working on wampum as a solitary practice is situated outside the earlier functions of these belts as markers of social, political and spiritual life. He is incorporating personal messages of identity and continuity of knowledge into his explorations with contemporary media, materials, colours, and shapes, while finding ways to still connect to the principles and language of wampum.

As an Algonquin, Dom Lafontaine sees wampum as a symbol of transaction, both political and cultural - a sort of graphic receipt. The two Algonquin belts that he knows of are interactions and agreements with Nations to the south of his territory at Timiskaming. As such they are like a modern-day hypertext that extends human memories of inherited knowledges.

As an artist Lafontaine uses the old to find the new. He uses the symbolism and the graphic materiality of the wampum to explore the relationship between native artistic practice and new technologies. He constantly searches for new media to work with and relishes the opportunity to rediscover and remix traditional materials with digital tools. He is particularly interested in knowing how Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools interpret indigenous concepts via often biased or colonial datasets.[2]

With the emergence of AI assisted art, he believes it is even more important to use archetypes and imagery to better explain and explore these new concepts of creation. His objective is to find the ghosts in the machine - in this case the ghost is AI while the mind is the Indigenous body. He seeks to see what we have in common: are we interwoven or are we separate entities?

Using Generative AI, he generates synthetic material culture as images which closely resemble human-created content. Wanna Trade Belts? is a digital art installation that explores the notion of wampum in the future. By using AI tools, Lafontaine has created wampum that bears some resemblance but pushes us forward to see and remember the belts that we have previously encountered. As the viewer we then need to invest in the generated images to see what wampum might look like in the future.

The wampum bead has always been more than just a bead. It is also a memory holding languages from the past that continue to inform the present and the future. This exhibition maintains the tradition of using a mnemonic devise to carry knowledge in the present and into the future. Lafontaine and Renaud are re-examining historic material culture to come to a new understanding, tell new stories, and explore what new and different stories will be told of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination in the future.

[1] The purple shells come from the quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) .The source of the white beads included the Channeled Whelk (Busycon canaliculatum), Knobbed Whelk (Busycon carica), Lightening Whelk (Busycon sinistrum), and Snow Whelk (Busycon Laeostomum).

[2] A data set is an organized collection of data. They are generally associated with a unique body of work and typically cover one topic at a time.

UPCOMING Exhibitions

Greg Staats 
title TBC
February 3 - April 13, 2024

Martin Rodriquez
Ehecatl (tiemporalities)
February 3 - April 13, 2024

Cheyenne Rain Le Grande
title TBC
April 27- June 15

Cedar-Eve Peters
title TBC
April 27- June 15

daphne operates on unceded lands. We are proud to be a part of this urban island territory, known as Tiohtià:ke by the Kanien’kehá:ka and as Mooniyang by the Anishinaabe, as it continues to be a rich gathering place for both Indigenous and other peoples.


site design by Sébastien Aubin